Tom Magstadt's Blog

Tom Magstadt

Tom Magstadt
Ridgway, Colorado, USA
July 23
Dr. (not physician; more like metaphysics)
self-employed freelance writer
There's a charming old stone cottage at the end of a lane in a sleepy village called Utery ("Tuesday") in the former Sudetenland (West Bohemia). I miss it. Worst job: farm hand. Best job: teaching at the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base. Worst good job: CIA intelligence analyst. Favorite profession I didn't choose: journalism.


MARCH 15, 2012 2:23PM

One Tweet from Prison: A Teenage Tragedy

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The high-profile "hate crime" case involving Rutgers roommates, one of whom was meek, bespectacled, and gay, the other rich, rakish, and reputedly arrogant.  The two college freshmen co-existed without open hostility but rarely spoke a word.  Tyler Clementi would invite a gay lover to the room on occasion and ask his roommate to leave them alone.  Dharun Ravi obliged.  But Ravi's webcam captured one of these trysts and, upon discovering the video, he foolishly tweeted about it.

In all probability, had Clementi not jumped off the George Washington Bridge one day nothing more would ever have come of it.  Had Ravi not made a video of his roommate's gay sexual encounter and put it out on the Internet, there would be no trial.  But both things happened and result is that Clementi is dead and Ravi is facing the possibility of  a ten-year prison sentence.  Or he could be deported:  both Ravi's parents were born in India.  His younger brother is the only American citizen in the family.

America's prisons are bulging at the seams.  Adam Gopnik ("The Caging of America," The New Yorker, January 30, 2012) writes, "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades.."

In fact, there are currently more individuals incarcerated or under "correctional supervision" in the US prison system than there were in Stalin's Gulag Archipelago, more per capita than in any other country in the world.   Few prison inmates have ever committed a violent crime.  Many become victims of violence while in prison (more than 70,000 prisoners are raped each year in the U.S.).

 Texas alone has sentenced over 400 teenagers to life in prison.  Using comparative data of all the world's highest income countries, the natural rate of incarceration is around 100 per 100,000.  In the United States, it is now more than 7 times that rate.  It all happened in the span of 30 years:  between 1980 and 2010, the number tripled to 731 per 100,000.  And now it's big business.

Writes Gopnik:  "…a growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men…".

Will Dharun Ravi be one of the condemned who gets flushed into the teeming prison system? We'll soon know. Should he be? No, but...

Assuming the evidence for convicting Dharun Ravi of "bias intimidation" (a limpid and ambiguous euphemism if ever there was one) is overwhelming, Ravi still didn't kill Clementi (or will his death) and in the absence of anything (not even a suicide note) linking Ravi's dickish behavior to Clementi's final act there's no way to connect the two. But there IS - or ought to be - an alternative to prison or letting Ravi off scot-free.

How about some serious, extended community service (in lieu of prison time)? I'm talking about an actual job doing things that most privileged kids at Ivy Colleges never dream of doing? What if Ravi were given a choice: enlist in the Army or work in some low-level city job (parks, streets, water and sewer, whatever) for minimum wage for, say, five years? What if Ravi were sentenced to live in low-rent housing, pay his own room and board, and deprived of all parental subsidy during the time he was serving his "sentence"?

Most criminals are not students at Rutgers.  Most have a less auspicious start in life. What about them?  Just turn the other cheek?  No, but...

What if we looked for better, smarter, cheaper ways of making crime not pay? What if we made non-violent criminals (the vast majority) pay for the damage they've done without making taxpayers pay for housing and feeding bad actors who could and should be doing an honest day's work? What if we gave them a choice? Work at a court-ordered job while staying out of trouble long enough to repay your debt to society or face the drudgery and danger of incarceration.

Case closed.

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It is horrible. But it seems like stupid bad judgement for the accused. I don't think it should ruin his life.
We are spending so much money on jails. Especially drug use. Why are we paying for prison?
Clementi and Ravi were students at Rutgers, not Dartmouth.